Muhammad Ali: in profile

Muhammad Ali was an American boxer, activist and poet. Born Cassius Clay, he changed his name after converting to Islam. Nicknamed “The Greatest”, he won a gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics and became the heavyweight champion of the world.

In the mid-1980s, he made public his diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease, a condition that may have been linked to head blows sustained during bouts.

When did you first hear about Ali?

As a kid I got very involved in his story because everyone said I looked a bit like him. He was the greatest boxer of his era, and arguably the greatest sportsman of the 20th century. I found it inspiring that someone who was world famous looked like me! I was also attracted by his clever wordplay – be it his famous “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” quip or his “I’ve wrestled with alligators” freestyle rap. That was one of the reasons I decided to become a poet. He’s been called the first rapper, and rightly so in my eyes.

What kind of person was he?

First and foremost, he was his own man. Yes, he was a braggart, a boaster and a showman – but he was also a man of courage, as he showed both in the ring and in the way he wasn’t afraid to defy the conventions of the time, for instance in his stance against the Vietnam War. In a similar vein, he changed his name from Cassius Clay – which he regarded as a slave name – to Ali. Last, not only was he a handsome man but also an intelligent, witty one, as he frequently showed.

What made Ali a hero?

Lots of things, among them his opposition to the Vietnam War. That led to him being stripped of his boxing titles and facing jail after being found guilty of evading the draft, though he successfully appealed against his conviction. He also spoke up for himself and took care of the business end of things as well as the boxing. You can see why white supremacists loathed him and subjected him to so many death threats. I think he’s one of the most underrated black rights activists of the whole civil rights movement.

What was his finest hour?

First, the way he stood up to the US military and refused to fight the Viet Cong. Second, his brilliance in the ring – you only have to watch footage of his fights against the likes of Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and George Foreman (in the “Rumble in the Jungle”) to see that he really was the greatest boxer of all time. Third, the way he’d often come back and win despite taking a heavy beating. And fourth, the dignity and grace with which he faced up to Parkinson’s disease later in life.

Is there anything that you don’t particularly admire about him?

Not really – he had to do the bragging and the boasting to make it to the top of his profession.

What would you ask Ali if you could meet him?

I’d ask him what it was like in the Deep South in the sixties, when he couldn’t drink from the same water fountain as a white man, and how much he thought things had really changed since then.

Craig Charles hosts a weekday show on BBC Radio 6 Music from 1 to 4pm. The Craig Charles Trunk of Funk Vol 2 album is out now on Soul Bank Music

This content first appeared in the March 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine

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